What is telemedicine?

The COVID-19 pandemic is not only changing how we live on a daily basis – it’s also changing how physicians provide patient care.

Healthcare providers are turning to telemedicine to continue providing services while also reducing the spread of coronavirus. But how does telemedicine work?

“Telemedicine allows the remote delivery of patient care through the use of phone or video,” said Dr. Daniel Murphy, assistant professor and medical director of the Section of Internal Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine.

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How telemedicine works

Telemedicine uses a secure and HIPAA-compliant version of a video conferencing tool such as Zoom, which allows patients to call in via video whenever they have an appointment. Telemedicine allows patients to communicate questions or health concerns with their primary care provider virtually.

While surgery and comprehensive physical exams cannot be performed through telemedicine, physicians can provide minor exams and monitor certain symptoms. For example, Murphy says physicians can determine if the patient is comfortably breathing or evaluate a rash or other visual concerns.

“We can do a lot through telemedicine, but we can only do a limited physical exam,” he said. “There are many other aspects of the physical exam that I’m not able to do, such as listen to the lungs or heart. Patients who need this type of exam will need to come into the clinic.”

If patients have their own monitoring devices at home, such as a blood pressure cuff, they can take their own blood pressure and virtually discuss numbers and the risks and benefits of their results.

If a patient needs testing, clinicians can order lab work through the telemedicine system. Patients have the option to visit a local lab to send in their results versus driving to the Texas Medical Center.

“Patients normally have an idea of what can and cannot be done over the phone or video,” Murphy said. “Our physicians and staff have been in communication with our patients and are helping them decide if their concern can be treated through telemedicine or if they need to be seen in the clinic. In some cases, they need to be treated at a hospital or emergency department because their condition is more serious.”

Benefits of telemedicine

While telemedicine is a recent addition to many clinics, Murphy said it has been beneficial to certain patients. Telemedicine not only provides safety to patients and healthcare workers during the outbreak, but it has allowed those who are unable to make it to clinic appointments to receive care.

“We are also learning that many patients who were afraid to come to us are more willing to receive care via telemedicine, especially those who are older and at higher risk of complications from COVID-19 infections,” he said. “We can provide some assistance for their medical needs through telemedicine, but there are still a handful of patients who need to come in because there is something we need to physically examine.”

How telemedicine could change patient care

Because of the urgency to implement telemedicine due to COVID-19, Murphy believes it will become more accessible to patients in the future.

“A lot of people have given thought to telemedicine but never fully rolled out a program,” he said. “There is a rush to get telemedicine up and running due to the need to provide care in a safe manner, and this pandemic kick-started something that was going to take a lot longer to implement than originally planned.”

While there might be more options for patients to treat minor issues, Murphy adds there will be some restrictions after the outbreak is over. “One question that I believe will come up is what can and cannot be done via telemedicine when things go back to normal,” Murphy said. “I think this is a special situation – specific services may need to go back to the clinic when this is all over.”

If you are experiencing symptoms related to coronavirus, contact your primary care provider via phone or MyChart.

Learn more about telehealth services at Baylor or call (713) 798-1000.

-By Kaylee Dusang

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